When the New Jersey Board of Medical Examiners disciplines a healthcare professional, the public needs to know.
But residents of the Garden State may find it difficult -- if not impossible -- to access anything like current information. The board has failed to update its record ofsince November 2012.
That gives New Jersey the dubious distinction of finishing in last place among all 49 medical boards that post comparable records, according to research for this article. It also means that many residents are unable to reach a fully informed decision about medical care, one of the most important that many will make.
“We have a right to know who's treating us,” said Bonnie Parks, a resident of East Brunswick who holds a Masters of Public Health. “We have a right to know where they went to school and what their certifications are.”
Parks is hardly alone. The licensed physician search feature on the agency's website receives thousands of queries each month. According to the board, the site was accessed 54,790 times during January 2013. Visitors average 9.14 page views per visit.
The state board, which is part of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, also licenses healthcare professionals.
Just how backlogged is the New Jersey board? A total of 44 state boards are updated through the end of April 2013, meaning that there is less than a month between a disciplinary action and the public notification. These notices include information about actions taken against licensees, restoration of temporarily suspended licenses, and fines issued to unlicensed practitioners.
A visit to the board's website in February 2013 revealed that even fewer records were available: the most recent were from July 2012 and records from April and May of that year were also absent. In March 2013, the website was updated with records from August, September, October and November 2012. Yet even with these updates, New Jersey is still the slowest state to post public disciplinary actions.
Staff members of the medical board did not reply to requests for interviews, but the board did answer questions by an email mediated through the press office of the Division of Consumer Affairs. It stated that the missing records “will be posted shortly” and that “it should be noted that, even when not on the Board’s website, these notices are public documents and remain available to members of the public upon request.”
Requests for the documents made through New Jersey's Open Public Records Act were denied because the records are “not yet available.”
The lack of records does not mean the board has been inactive. For example, Victor Tauro's physician profile states that his license was suspended on March 8, 2013. Frank Santangelo surrendered his license on February 7, 2013. But without the summaries of the public disciplinary actions, it's impossible to know why these doctors lost their licenses.
Cross-referencing recent board actions with physician profiles also turned up a number of profiles missing disciplinary information.
Dr. Orin Keith Atlas's profile is completely clean, with no license restrictions, reprimands, or malpractice payments. There is no mention of the fact that his license was suspended for six months, starting on May 22, 2012. Atlas was found by the board to be accepting kickbacks in exchange for referrals to The Black Institute, a medical practice that performs neurosurgery and orthopedic surgery. There also is no mention of the $18,000 fine Atlas was required to pay the board.
Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of the health research group at Public Citizen, says that a lack of funding and staffing due to state budget cuts has been a major problem for many medical boards. Public Citizen assesses and ranks the effectiveness of state medical boards across the United States. Wolfe said that New Jersey has an issue with timeliness and updating the website. “One reason is that they’re short on staff and it takes time to put these things on the website."
The New Jersey Medical Board has not been affected by state cuts, and in its statement said, “the board has the resources it needs, and is self-funded through the licensure fees and the penalties and cost reimbursements it collects.”
Even with sufficient resources, a lack of staff does seem to be an issue at the board. Margaret Harris, who is still listed as director of public filings on the medical board's website, retired on May 1, 2012. She says the board has not yet filled the opening. The director of public filings oversees the public records related to disciplinary actions taken by the board, tracks probationary requirements, and keeps records of penalty payments. The board said that it does not publicly comment on staffing issues.
Nationwide,are subject to serious disciplinary actions by state medical boards. According to Public Citizen, New Jersey took 2.26 actions per 1,000 doctors between 2009 and 2011, a rate that was below the national average of 3.06 per 1,000.
Residents interviewed for this story said they rely primarily on verbal referrals from family, trusted friends, and current physicians to help them find a new doctor or specialist. Still, they felt that having access to information about their doctors is important.
Jon Cummings, who lives in Elmer and works for a nonprofit, says that although he has not felt the need to check on a doctor's background, he thinks the state should maintain records of their licensees. “I'd like to know that if I wanted to research it, I could find it.”